My seven-year-old self felt there was no better toy than a good stick. When the tall white oaks around the reservoir began to turn colors in the fall, we would collect bundles of their smaller dropped branches, picking only the finest specimens. Crawling around in the piles of leaves, we brandished them like many a different weapon. What made a good stick, I don’t know. But somehow my friend Max, two years older than I, managed to find all of the best ones; my sticks tended to be middling. This lack of stick-appraising skill was not unlike my inability to claim the Far Side in the back seat of his family’s bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit. What defined the car’s prized seat defied the logic of its name; it simply was where Max sat, a fact I only grasped in hindsight.
The stature of oaks made them useless in our other favorite tree-related activity: climbing. The low branches of the magnolia in my parent’s backyard—kitty-corner from Max’s house, and Daniel’s too—made it particularly well-suited to my own childhood lack of coordination, while the upper strata of thin branches were the domain of the athletic Max and Shane, who lived just a block up Court Street. The sap-sticky branches of the pines at Howard Park were more democratic, their straight, regularly spaced branches as simple to scale as a ladder, making it possible for me to reach a similarly high perch above the park’s swing set and merry-go-round.
Trees were toys for all of us, but they were less generic for me. When we had Christmas at the farm my grandfather lived on outside of Mason City, we didn’t just decorate some random conifer; the presents were laid out below a stately Blue Spruce. And the trees were usually cut from one of the many stands planted on his land, some of which was devoted to growing seedlings into saplings to sell to his landscaping clients at Blackmore Nursery.
In the tall Bur oak behind the house he built a tree house for me, the ladder a set of two-by-fours running up the trunk, leading to a platform set high in the tree’s rough arms. From that perch I could look across to the other massive oak, hung with an array of birdfeeders, and over to the shed and the brick silo. In the shed were stacks of decomposable rag-paper pots, the kind that could be planted along with the root ball of a tree and left to rot away into the soil. In the other direction, away from the house, was a low-lying flat plain gridded with irrigation pipes and sprinklers for watering the saplings Grandpa Wink kept there.
His way with plants wasn’t limited to trees. In the springtime we took cardboard flats and short, dull knives over to a patch of asparagus that ran along side the fence marking the south edge of the property. Though asparagus was a vegetable I loathed as a child, I helped with the harvest nonetheless, hunting for the green spears amongst the grass and slicing off the stalks with those worn knives. He also knew where a small spring was, just off of the gravel road that led to his fields of sod, the grass as thick and perfect as a carpet, where you could pick watercress that grew among the rocks. In the summer, her tended to a small plot of tomatoes next to the papery barked Birch tree.
When the trees were dormant and the sod fields were covered in snow, Wink replaced his long days of nursery work with time spent in his basement woodshop. His designs were elegant and practical, a bed frame or a bookshelf, and always built out of cheap knotty pine. The house was heated by a castiron stove that he expertly built fires in every morning, stoking the smoldering coals into jumping flames again whenever the temperature dipped too low. His life was never too far removed from a tree of some sort.